Prince Offered A Ticket To A Forbidden World In His Music
His songs so luxuriated in sensuality that a satirical item from The Onion that circulated after his death Thursday had the ring of truth: that Americans were too sad to pay homage the way he would have wanted, by enthusiastically having sex.
Simply picking up his third album in 1980 told you someone very different had arrived in the music world. Titled Dirty Mind, the front cover pictured him in a black thong. Inside, on songs like “Head,” ‘‘Sister” and “Do it All Night,” he sang about incest, oral sex with a bride-to-be and much more.
If Prince was singing what was on his mind, well, he was a 21-year-old guy when he wrote the songs.
In an interview with Musician magazine in 1983, Prince talked of growing up too fast and living in the basement of a friend’s house when he was 16. He had too much freedom, but he was still young; what he wrote about was fantasy. “When I started writing, I cut myself off from relationships with women,” he said.
His breakthrough two years later, “Little Red Corvette,” was one long, steamy metaphor. 1999 was another super-charged album. It’s not hard to figure what makes him “Delirious.” And he didn’t suggest “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” to take long walks on the beach.
By the time of Purple Rain, the world knew who Prince was. He’d written more explicit songs than “Darling Nikki,” but this time Washington mom Tipper Gore had bought the album for her 11-year-old daughter and was shocked to hear a song about a one-night stand with a woman the singer met while she was masturbating in a hotel lobby.
“I couldn’t believe my ears,” said Gore, who went on to form the Parents Music Resource Center and launch an effort that led to warning labels on albums. “The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us. At first, I got stunned. Then, I got mad.”
The Prince we knew through his music worshipped women to the point of obsession. Two of his album covers featured phallic symbols, one as a flower near a picture of a nude Prince strategically posed. Yet Prince was unafraid to be in touch with his feminine side with the colorful way he dressed, and on a song like “If I Was Your Girlfriend” he played with gender roles.
He telegraphed ambiguity in his 1981 song “Controversy,” where the narrator asked: “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?”
Prince embraced mystery, said Alan Light, author of the book “Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain.” He didn’t give interviews when he topped the charts in the mid-1980s, and was the most famous person that people knew next to nothing about.
“He was very aware of what would get attention and what would get noticed,” Light said. “And if he could get noticed while adding to the mystery and the questions and the speculation, that was a win-win.”
Soul singers like Al Green and Marvin Gaye were tortured by the relationship between sex and God, he said. Prince embraced spirituality and sensuality in equal measure, not seeing them as incompatible. In “Adore,” he sang of hearing heavenly angels while making love.
For a generation that grew up on Prince, his music was like finding a forbidden book tucked behind the shelf. In a 2015 essay for Buzzfeed, Nichole Perkins wrote about how she appreciated that many women in Prince’s songs loved sex and were more experienced than their partners.
“I expected my boyfriends to let me lead sometimes and to express neediness without shame,” she wrote. “My disappointment was frequent, so I’d return to Prince’s music to daydream.”
Singer Frank Ocean, who is gay, said on social media Thursday that he appreciated more than Prince’s music.
“He was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee-high heeled boots,” Ocean said. “Epic. He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom.”
As Prince grew older and became a Jehovah’s Witness, his days in “Erotic City” were largely behind him.
Yet listen to last year’s “Breakfast Can Wait,” where the narrator and his lover opt to spend the morning in bed – not to sleep – and you’re reminded of the days Prince pretty much had one thing on his mind.